Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Darna At Ding (Philippines, 1980)

What better way to continue 4DK’s Week Of The Woman than with our old pal Darna? Darna At Ding was the last Darna film to star Filipino screen icon Vilma Santos, as well as the last Darna film, period, for quite a few years, marking the start of a Darna drought that would see the character absent from the P.I.’s cinema screens until 1991, when the series was resurrected with the Nanette Medved fronted Darna. As such, Darna At Ding offers up something of a “Darna’s Greatest Hits” package, emulating the episodic structure that was used in Lipad, Darna, Lipad!, Santos’ hit 1973 debut in the role.

The film begins with a pre-credit sequence recounting, once again, Darna’s origin. Apparently the notion of Darna’s alter ego having a bum leg, introduced in the previous film Darna and the Planet Women, has since been abandoned, as humble village girl Narda is here presented as being once again fully able-bodied. After Narda has found and swallowed the magic space stone that will facilitate her transformation into the titular super-heroine, we’re whisked into a series of brief vignettes in which we see Darna make very short work of both her old foe Hawk-Woman and one of the giants from Darna and the Giants.

Then it’s time for the first half of Darna At Ding’s main narrative, which could easily be called “Darna vs. The Zombies”.

As is typical of the series, Darna At Ding shows Narda’s tiny rural village to be the locus of every imaginable kind of extraterrestrial, criminal and paranormal activity -- and shambling, green slime slobbering ghouls are apparently no exception. The responsible party in this case is an angry lady scientist named Dr. Vontesberg -- played by Marissa Delgado in an eye-flashing, telenovela-worthy performance -- who is addressing a past injustice by raising the recently dead and setting them upon the villagers. This provides for a lot of creepy moments, but also an abundance of funereal comedic hijinks, as a good portion of Darna At Ding is played for laughs. Corny gags abound, boosted by the presence of beloved Filipino comedian Panchito (last seen here at 4DK as the Penguin in Alyas Batman en Robin) in a key role. Gay zombies who shamble with a swish, adjacent funeral parties trying to aggressively out-mourn one another, people running in fast motion from recently resurrected love ones -- no brow, clearly, is too low.

Darna’s little brother and sidekick Ding is played this time around by popular child star Nino Muhlach, and true to his name-in-title billing, Darna At Ding is really his time to shine. The Mars Ravelo website reports that Muhlach’s family owned D’Wonder Films, the production company responsible for the film, but I won’t speculate upon how much that had to with his heavy presence in it. (Although I just kind of did.) In any case, the fact that Narda spends a great deal of the movie’s first half chained up in Dr. Vontesberg’s dungeon frees up a lot of screen time for Ding to take center stage. Thus we have, among other things, a memorable sequence in which Ding swallows Darna’s magic stone and turns into a sort of pre-pubescent male version of Darna -- a first, as far as I’m aware -- and then flies around punching zombies in the head.

Once the zombie threat is wrapped up, we get another brief episode in which Darna and Ding round up a gang of escaped convicts. For the most part, this bit comes off as an opportunity for Vilma Santos’ to display her faux kung fu skills, but then it takes a darker turn, with one of the cons gunning down an innocent bystander. Given that Darna is rarely shown to be ruthless in these movies, it comes as a bit of a shock when she then grimly doles out justice to the offender by swiftly snapping his neck. Elsewhere, the other cons wisely respond to Darna’s reasoned arguments by giving up their weapons. Interestingly, while the film was unsubtitled, it appeared to me that, on more than one occasion, Darna was shown to eschew violence in favor of simply trying to talk sense into her foes in this manner. Darna: so awesome.

Darna At Ding’s final episode sees the pair following a trail of missing children to the doorstep of Lei Ming, an evil Chinese sorceress played -- in yet another eye-flashing, telenovela-worthy performance -- by Celia Rodriguez. Much as with Dr. Vontesberg, there seems to be a tragic dimension to Lei Ming, as she follows many of her acts of evil with extended crying jags. This nonetheless doesn’t prevent her from committing some pretty heinous acts of devilry, such as when she tortures poor Ding with a voodoo doll.

The climax of this “Darna vs. the Dragon Lady” part of Darna At Ding sees Lei Ming conjure up an evil double of Darna to keep our heroine busy while, elsewhere in her lair, a towering robot bears menacingly down upon Ding. It’s a suitably whiz-bang finale to this loopy, kitchen sink confection, and one that makes the long, strange and circuitous route that we’ve taken to get to it seem perhaps less arduous in retrospect.

Still, at a solid two hours, Darna At Ding is an example of a movie that pulls out all the stops, but perhaps shouldn’t have. While it’s combination of horror movie chills, superhero thrills and slapstick spills might have been catnip for the Filipino audience of its day, for the rest of us it might prove mildly exhausting. Nonetheless, I find Vilma Santos so appealing in her role that it’s hard for me to imagine hating any Darna movie that she appears in, and this one’s no exception.

It's the 4DK Animalympics! Round 3

Pedro, The Ape Bomb

Skill Set: Marksman, acrobat, cocktailier, chimp of many faces

Like Moti, Pedro, star of the soul-pummelingly awesome Zimbo movies, almost seems to have an unfair advantage in this competition. He's just such a prodigious talent. However, due to his self destructive nature, Pedro also faces challenges that his competitors don't. Of all of the animals featured in the Animalympics, he is far and away the most likely to find himself embroiled in a Phil Spector-like tragedy involving an ill-advised combination of alcohol and gunfoolery. Nonetheless, his light, when it shines, does so oh, so very brightly.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ver Ni Aag (India, 1982)

So I feel there’s some urgency to my finding a more woman-friendly film to post about this week. After all, it’s been kind of smelling like a locker room up in here, what with all the yelling Pakistani men and weird Taiwanese movies about flaming comets seeking out lady parts. Clearly if I don’t flip the script my female readers are going to quite understandably flee en masse, leaving this just one more of those countless cult film blogs whose readership is exclusively male. (Hey, I love you guys, but you know it can’t be all about you, right?) As is, one of my ill-considered recommendations has already got poor Memsaab busy building a time machine so that she can go back and prevent Haseena Atom Bomb from ever being made. 4DK needs an estrogen infusion STAT, and I was thinking that Ver Ni Aag just might fit the bill.

Back in my review of Rani Aur Jaani, I remarked upon how much I enjoyed seeing Aruna Irani in a rare action heroine role. For those who don’t know, Irani was a Bollywood actress and item girl of the 60s and 70s who, as the former, never managed to make it beyond supporting roles and, as the latter, never quite made it out from under the shadow of the ubiquitous Helen. Her turn in Rani Aur Jaani made me hopeful for the possibility that she had, like Helen, forged an alternate career as a leading lady outside the Bollywood mainstream, perhaps either in B films or in one of the many regional cinemas of India. Well, sure enough, it turns out that Irani did indeed find considerable popularity as a heroine in Gujarati language action films, of which Ver Ni Aag is one example.

There’s a new D.I.G. in town, Inspector Jaydeep Singh (Kiran Kumar), and he’s determined to clean things up, as is exemplified in a rapid-fire series of scenes in which he shuts down four operations representing a litany of all the most un-Indian of criminal enterprises: those being the smuggling out of grain and religious artifacts, and the smuggling in of narcotics and liquor. The leaders of these respective operations then band together to combat this new threat to their villainous livelihoods, dubbing themselves “The Mischievous Four” – an appellation which falls somewhere well below “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” and “COBRA” on the scale of intimidating-sounding names for a cabal of super-villains. It’s quite fitting, then, that the Mischievous Four’s initial attempts at shutting Jaydeep Singh down meet with all the success of Wile E Coyote’s efforts to catch the Road Runner.

For starters, they attempt to kidnap Jaydeep’s sister. Jaydeep’s sister, however, turns out to be Parul, played by Aruna Irani, who responds to their threatening advances by kung fu-ing them all into the middle of next week, all the while doling out pithy wisecracks at their expense. Those of the Mischievous Four’s minions who don’t immediately turn tail and run are then summarily dealt with by Parul with the help of handsome police cadet Amar (Firoz Irani, I think), who just happens upon the scene at a fortuitous moment. This affords Parul and Amar the opportunity to do a “meet cute” while simultaneously pummeling a bunch of thugs into unconsciousness.

The above-described scene put me in an optimistic frame of mind as to what the rest of Ver Ni Aag might be like. Unfortunately, I was to find myself a bit disappointed. Because, all told, Ver Ni Aag just isn’t all that well made of a film. For starters, its low budget is made overly apparent by its cramped, nondescript sets, it’s frequently under-lit look and it’s dodgy sound mix. Of course, it goes without saying that low-rent trappings like that don’t necessarily exclude a film from being, at the very least, entertaining, and frequently even awesome. Sadly, however, Ver Ni Aag also commits the all too frequent Indian B movie sin of relying far too heavily on comic relief and padding to fill out its running time, going so far as to include a superfluous scene set in a movie theater so that a sizeable portion of a musical number from an Amitabh Bachchan film can be shoehorned in. Gestures like that -- essentially trying to cajole the audience by showing them bits from an obviously better made film -- are the ultimate admission of defeat by a filmmaker, and amount to telling the audience straight out that they would have been better off staying at home.

Worst of all, though, is the fact that director S. J. Taluqdar just doesn’t seem all that good at filming action. The fights in Ver Ni Aag, when they do occur, are clearly the film’s reason for being, yet are frustratingly lacking in the excitement that a more dynamic approach to staging and filming would have engendered. While the film was refreshing for lacking the sleaziness that marks similar women-centric actioners from Tollywood and Lollywood (indeed, Aruna Irani’s outfits are all downright demure here), I sorely missed the hyperactive verve that a director like Tollywood’s K.S.R. Doss would have brought to the proceedings. As such, while the many dust-ups are a welcome break from the monotony that surrounds them -- and it’s certainly fun to watch Irani’s enthusiastic participation in them -- the somewhat nailed-down approach to filming them keeps them from being the suitably ample reward that our patience deserves.

Anyway, back in the business of Ver Ni Aag’s plot, the Mischievous Four, after further fumbling their attempts to stop the heroic Jaydeep Singh -- first with an unsuccessful assassination-by-sniper at a village festival (a toddler dressed as Krishna shoots the gun out of the sniper’s hand with an arrow), and then with a truly “what were they thinking” attempt to bribe Parul and Amar -- finally get it right by luring the inspector into a deserted area and running him down with a truck. This event, occurring at the film’s sixty-minute mark, finally lights the “fire of revenge” within Parul that will energize Ver Ni Aag’s remaining half. Though let’s not be too hasty about things. After all, that still leaves plenty of time for us to be treated to yet more of the comedic shenanigans of the same trio of bumbling policemen who have already taken up a sizeable chunk of the first half.

I had mixed feelings watching Ver Ni Aag. Aruna Irani was just as charming and appealingly scrappy as she was in Rani Aur Jaani, and I was happy to see her once again taking on a lead role of this type. I only hope that Ver Ni Aag isn’t indicative of the overall quality of her other ventures as a heroine of Gujarati cinema. She deserves better.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Make that a double

True story: When I first moved to San Francisco from the East Bay all those many years ago, I suddenly found myself being mistaken for someone else. This wasn't just one of those momentary errors of recognition, where the person would realize their mistake immediately upon getting a better look at me. In one case, a woman who I had never seen before in my life kept insisting that she knew me, and became quite offended when I didn't recognize her in return.

At the same time, my friends began reporting seeing me in places that I couldn't have been -- like, for instance, riding on a city bus during hours when I would have been at work. This came to a head when one friends told me of running into someone at a club whom they were certain was me, only to realize that it wasn't after engaging that person in conversation for several minutes. Eventually these occurrences dwindled in frequency and stopped, perhaps because my apparent double had either moved, gotten a new haircut, become a masked luchadore, or maybe been the victim of some kind of disfiguring accident.

I bring this up because yesterday, while in the process of being bored into a state of past life regression by From Istanbul, Orders to Kill, it occurred to me that the movie was about the zillionth I'd seen in the last couple years whose plot depended on the device of one person looking exactly like another. Often a character in these movies will remark upon how rare such instances are, but to my understanding -- my own experience notwithstanding -- it is actually something that never happens. Ever. Which makes it even stranger that it's such a common trope. Or am I wrong about this?

I mean, I know we instinctively look for resemblances between people, and are often saying that so-and-so looks like so-and-so. But has anyone out there ever actually encountered someone whose resemblance to someone else was so striking that they could conceivably actually substitute for that person?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Faqeeria (Pakistan, 1987)

The Punjabi film Faqeeria is one of around five hundred films that Pakistani superstar Sultan Muhammad -- popularly known as Sultan Rahi -- starred in before his untimely death as a victim of violent crime in 1996. His prolific output prompts me to again reflect upon what it once meant to be a movie star in many parts of Asia, and, in comparison to the Western model, the very different work ethic that it entailed. In Hollywood, a star of Sultan Rahi's stature would have been afforded by his or her bigger payday the leisure to cherry pick projects while making only one or two films a year, while many Asian stars on the same relative scale would be driven by the economics of their indigenous film industries to labor toward being near constant presences on their nations' cinema screens. It's for this reason that beloved stars like Thailand's Mitr Chaibancha, Hong Kong's Connie Chan and India's Amitabh Bachchan each churned out literally dozens of films a year during the peak of their popularity. Still, despite the impressive density of those aforementioned icons' respective filmographies, I've got to say that Sultan Rahi takes the cake.

For me to attempt a formal "review" of Faqeeria would be something of a joke. It's a complexly plotted masala film with multiple characters, whose telling is aided by multiple flashbacks, a significant chunk of opening narration, and the occasional echo-laden inner monologue. Without English subtitles I was lost before it even began. My sorting out of the relationships between the characters was also complicated by the fact that most of the actors were middle-aged, despite the fact that they were playing characters who were generations apart. (Mirroring the grand Bollywood tradition, Sultan Rahi's mother is played by an actress who is, at most, his age, if not considerably younger.)

Despite my lack of comprehension, however, it was hard not to get sucked in by the delirious intensity of Faqeeria's melodrama, marked as it was by so much throaty yelling and a near-constant use of those thunderclap sound effects that Punjabi cinema of that era seemed to have been so fond of. Then there are the fight scenes. You haven't lived until you've seen two paunchy and hirsute fifty year olds engaging in a kung fu fight complete with wild, wire-assisted flips and jumps, not to mention some of the loudest sound effects you could possibly imagine -- all captured by an erratically tilting camera that makes you feel as if you yourself are dodging the blows. All I needed was the addition of Cuneyt Arkin running around with boulders strapped to his feet and I would have had something close to perfection.

Also on hand in Faqeeria is Mustafa Qureshi, an iconic screen adversary of Rahi's ever since their appearance together in the landmark Maula Jat. In this case, Rahi and Qureshi play (I think) estranged brothers who team up at the end to rescue their (I think) younger sister from the band of Bedouins who are holding her captive. Before their reconciliation, however, there is plenty of time for them to engage in lots of spirited -- well, I can't really call it "dishoom dishoom", because what Punjabi cinema delivers is more like "dish-BOOM".

As I mentioned in my review of Hunterwali, Sultan Rahi, Mustafa Qureshi and female star Anjuman were something of a holy triumvirate in Punjabi cinema during the late 70s and 80s, with one seldom appearing in a film without the others. And, in keeping with this, Anjuman also stars in Faqeeria, though in a decidedly less proactive role than the titular one she had in Hunterwali. In fact, she's more of a supporting player here, though she is the subject of a number of song picurizations, many of which, thanks to Wajahat Attre's music and her enthusiastic hoof-work, are quite good. On a side note about the soundtrack, I should also mention that Faqeeria's instrumental score features some nice Spaghetti Western style interludes, as well as a recurring synth theme that seems to be an homage to Europe's "The Final Countdown".

I've come to recognize that the films I'm drawn to tend to veer toward either one of two extremes. They're either stylized to within an inch of their lives, or so rough-hewn that their very roughness becomes a kind of style in itself. (This, as you might imagine, leaves a lot of room between Mario Bava and Harinam Singh for films that I don't have much time for at all.) Punjabi films like Faqeeria fall very close to that latter extreme, making them something that I look forward to exploring further. Though, of course, as always, subtitles would be a nice little bonus.

Monday, September 21, 2009

It's the 4DK Animalympics! Round 2

Moti from Mard

Skill Set: Telepathy, Terpsichore, bomb-making, whistling, peeing on Bob Christo's head.

It almost seems unfair to the rest to include Moti in this competition. Because just as Mard, in all its sweaty hyper-masculinty, comes across like a masala film on steroids, Moti himself seems like some kind of insanely supercharged version of your typical Bollywood anipal. Not only does he perform more than his share of canine derring-do, but he also proves himself adept at comical mugging and even dancing. When you consider all of that, it's surprising that Manmohan Desai didn't just go for broke and picturize a song on him, too. Ah, the missed opportunity! Even so, I'm fairly certain that, if we had ever seen an instance of Mohammed Aziz's dulcet tones emanating from a dog's mouth, it would have been Moti's.

Thrilling Sword (Taiwan, 1981)

Oh, Thrilling Sword. Where have you been all my life?

I’d actually never heard of this film until a few weeks ago. It was Keith from Teleport City who steered me toward it, doing so with the conspicuous lack of introduction or qualification that clues you in that you’ve been made privy to something truly special.

And special it indeed is; essentially the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves re-invented as a low-budget Taiwanese fantasy wuxia, during which not a moment passes without some kind of crazy visual realized by way of crude-but-colorful bargain basement special effects. This seems like an entertainment directed mainly at the kiddies, though one that also includes a few elements that would seem more appropriate in one of the Shaw Brothers’ visceral 1980s horror films.

To wit, the film’s opening scene, in which we see the Queen of the Wu Shieh Kingdom writhing in the throes of labor as the King paces anxiously in the background. What we know that they don’t, thanks to a staggeringly slapdash miniature shot, is that, at that very moment, a flaming comet is rapidly making its way toward the castle. Just as it seems that Her Highness is about to pop, that comet flies through the window and, with fateful accuracy, plants itself right up the Queen’s baby maker. Seconds later, an object that looks like a giant, veiny potato launches out of her nethers with such force that you’d think her uterus was spring-loaded. The startled King regards his now-expired wife and the veiny -- and now pulsating -- new addition to his household, and then orders his guards to take the potato and “throw it away”.

This the guards do by placing the potato in one of those floating cribs that seem made especially for the purpose of casting away unwanted royal newborns in old Bollywood movies. The potato’s journey downstream is a brief one , however, as it is soon intercepted by a band of dwarves who excitedly and repeatedly refer to it as “a big flesh ball”. These dwarves, by the way, are portrayed by normally-sized actors, whose diminutive size in relation to the other players is realized by the magic of either having those players stand on boxes below frame or the actors playing the dwarves doing their acting on their knees.

The dwarves cart the flesh ball back to their home, where they engage in a spirited debate over how best to cook it -- until it cracks open and a human baby comes out of it. After some apparent confusion over the baby’s sex, the dwarves decide to name her Yaur-Gi and keep her as their own, raising her in the cottage they share with a talking puppet chicken. Yaur-Gi grows up to be a beautiful young maiden, played by the actress Fong Fong-fong, and soon has a chance encounter with a handsome prince (Lau Seung-Him) whom she instantly falls in love with.

Meanwhile, a his-and-hers pair of evil sorcerers, Gi-err (Elsa Yeung Wai-San) and Shiah-ker (Chang Yi), seek to trick their way into the King’s good graces by secretly setting loose a one-eyed suitmation demon on the kingdom. They then exterminate the beast, becoming heroes and winning the king’s favor in the process, resulting in them both receiving positions of influence in the King’s court. Their next move is to conjure up a nine-headed serpent to wreak more havoc, but that plan is foiled by the handsome prince, who repeatedly stabs the serpent in each of its heads until it’s dead.

The Prince is now the toast of the fickle King’s court, much to the dissatisfaction of the two sorcerers, and is feted at a banquet where Yaur-Gi sneaks in to get a further gander at his handsomeness. It is under this circumstance that the King lays eyes on Yaur-gi and is somewhat creepily moved by her resemblance to his dead wife. Sorceress Gi-err rushes back to her magic mirror -- which in this telling is not a mirror at all, but a giant, boogity-looking idol with light-up eyes -- and is told that, not only is Yaur-gi the fairest of them all, but she is also the King’s daughter. Gi-err and Shiah-ker then scheme to abduct Yaur-gi and hypnotize her into accepting Shiah-ker’s marriage proposal, thus making him heir to the throne. Before they do that, however, they exact some payback against the handsome Prince, turning him into a stupid looking suitmation bear.

Once returned to human form with the help of the dwarves, the Prince is faced with the task of rescuing Yaur-gi from her zombification. Thus, with the assistance of a wee sprite (Ha Ling-ling), is he set off on a quest for an enchanted weapon, known as the Thunder Sword, and a magic box which turns out to contain a genie and a bunch of other stuff. The sword, once obtained, turns the Prince into an S&M togged magic warrior who looks like he stepped out of a Frank Frazetta painting. Thus enabled, he sets off for a climactic wire-fu and cartoon laser beam rich confrontation with the forces of evil.

Now, the above is comprised of waaay more straightforward plot summarization than I normally like to go into. But Thrilling Sword is the kind of movie where it seems better to simply document its contents than to weigh it against any conventional notions of quality or entertainment value. This is a film that contains “a big flesh ball”, impregnation by comet, 100 percent more suitmation monsters than you’d ever expect to see in a Taiwanese swordplay movie, all the hand-launched cartoon laser beams and lightning bolts you could hope for, giant genies and tiny fairies depicted by way of charmingly subpar optical effects, fart gags involving a chicken puppet, and giant talking idols with flying heads.

Even I have to admit that this is a weird movie – but not because I haven’t seen any of these things before. In fact, beyond the comet rape business, I’ve seen most of them -- but in Indian movies, not Taiwanese ones. All in all, Thrilling Sword seems like a perfect marriage of the Chinese wuxia genre and old Bollywood fantasy films like Homi Wadia’s Char Dervesh and Babubhai Mistry’s Saat Sawal Yane Hatim Tai, complete with a lot of the same low rent technical wizardry. Perfect in that, while -- in addition to Taiwanese cinema’s special gift for pure WTF -- you have all of the charm and naïve wonder of those Indian films, those films’ more languid approach to storytelling is here replaced by the breathless pacing and purely action-driven nature of Chinese martial arts cinema.

True, it would have been nice if Thrilling Sword had included a spiderweb-themed musical number involving Fong Fong-fong and Elsa Yeung Wai-San, but I’ll take that as a fair trade-off for the film’s bracing eighty-plus minute running time. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bollywood and all of its long-winded trappings, but once in a while it’s just nice to get your crack-brained Arabian Nights style adventure in a single, bite-sized serving. Even if the side dish is something that looks like a giant, bloody potato.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cleopatra Dynamite

Filipino exploitation king Bobby Suarez gives us the best of -- well, Bobby Suarez -- in Dynamite Johnson, his double-dipping sequel to both The Bionic Boy and They Call Her... Cleopatra Wong. Read my full review, just posted over at Teleport City.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's the 4DK Animalympics! Round 1

Sheroo, The Wonder Bird from Dharam Veer

Skill Set: Always knows where Pran is. Can loft a baby Dharmendra high into the heavens -- and you know that little sucker's got to have some serious heft to him. Guaranteed delivery.

Let's face it, Sheroo the Wonder Bird is truly the heart and soul of Dharam Veer. And that's saying quite a lot, given that Dharam Veer boasts an all-star cast and spans every epoch in human history in which men weren't required to wear proper pants. But just think of how many plot points in the film depend on this one bird's actions. For one, if not for Sheroo, baby Dharam would have simply fallen to his death from that parapet. The movie would then have just been called Veer and would consist entirely of Jeetendra modeling ridiculous pirate shirts for three hours. So, thank you Sheroo!

Stay tuned for the next installment of the 4DK Animalympics. And, yes, you will be tested!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From the Lucha Diaries Vaults: Santo contra el Rey del Crimen (Mexico, 1961)

In this installment: the sport of the future!


The plot of Santo contra el Rey del Crimen -- aka Santo vs. the King of Crime -- concerns corruption in the sport of Jai Alai. I had seen this sport depicted in an old episode of Miami Vice, which not only saved me some Wikipedia time, but also kept me from spending most of the movie scratching my head and saying, "What the hell?" Like Santo contra el Cerebro Diabolico, which I had watched previously to this, El Rey del Crimen is one of three pictures that Santo did for Peliculas Rodriguez with stars Fernando Casanova and Ana Bertha Lepe. As with Cerebro Diabolico, Casanova and Lepe are really the focus here, with the bits of Santo action rather awkwardly -- almost inexplicably, in fact -- integrated into the story.

Watching El Rey del Crimen gave me some insight into what gives these films that strange, disjointed feel. The producers here were trying to present Santo as a traditional superhero, hampered by the fact that his alter ego couldn't be shown. In your usual masked crime fighter yarn -- such as those told in the old Republic serials that clearly had such an influence on these films -- those scenes that here feature Casanova as police detective Fernando Lavalle would be those featuring the hero's alter ego. It's as if Superman and Clark Kent really were separate people -- and Superman really did just show up coincidentally whenever Clark and Lois were in trouble, just like Clark was always saying he did. (In fact, in her role as Virginia, an ambitious and fearless "girl" reporter -- and also Lavalle's girlfriend -- Lepe fills the Lois Lane role in all but name.)

El Rey del Crimen even gives us an origin story for Santo, showing us Santo as a young boy being told by his ailing father of the legacy of the Silver Mask, and goes on to introduce an Alfred-like manservant, Matias, who gives the young Santo his first look at the Batcave-like Santo lab. (Interestingly -- to judge by the cars, architecture and clothing -- the scenes of Santo's boyhood take place in what was then the present day, which means that the film's later events take place, well, a couple of years ago, though the films' version of our very recent past looks a lot like the early 60s.)

There's a fascinating, monastic element to the Enmascarado de Plata role that young Santo's guardians lay out for him here; the mask isn't meant for concealing identity so much as it is a means of renouncing it altogether. By becoming faceless, Santo is turning his back on the sin of pride and any potential for the desire to do good to be tainted by the desire for fame or worldly reward. Unfortunately, the film kind of skirts over the whole issue of how this version of Santo jibes with him pursuing fame as a professional wrestler -- and, needless to say, doesn't even touch upon the fact that his mask would just eventually become his (very famous) face. In any case, by 1966, we had a version of Santo whose house featured a room containing a simulated tropical beach in which he made sweet love to bikini clad women whom he dismissed with a snap of his fingers (see Operacion 67), so I think it's pretty safe to say that the idea of Santo as an ascetic was ultimately pretty much abandoned.

Anyway, while I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Santo contra el Cerebro Diabolico, I found this film to be fairly entertaining. And, it saddens me to say, it wouldn't be much less so without Santo. I just find Casanova and Lepe to be tremendously appealing actors (and Lepe is adorable, even with the tremendous hairdo they've got her hoisting around). I'm looking forward to Santo en el Hotel de la Muerte, the last of the Rodriguez pictures that I have to see. But, by this point, I know what to -- and what not to -- expect.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Yet more ruins

Believe it or not, I still haven't completed my cataloguing of all the husks of old movie theaters that dot Mission Street, my neighborhood's main drag. I should also mention that all of these theaters, including the one that I'm going to be presenting to you today, can be found within one short, four-block long stretch. Obviously the Mission was quite an entertainment Mecca back in the early days of the mid-twentieth century. This is perhaps reflected in the monumental elements incorporated into a lot of these theaters' designs, which hint at aspirations to permanence that could only have been maintained in an age when television and home video's impact on America's healthy theater-going habits was far beyond the reach of the imagination. Anyway, today, The El Capitan:

The good news for the El Capitan is that its facade remains relatively well-maintained. Though the theater itself closed down in 1964, the hotel attached to it has remained in business to this day, which accounts for it being the beneficiary of a few fresh coats of paint in the ensuing years. Built in 1928, The El Capitan was the largest of Mission Street's movie houses, with seating for over 2500.

The bad new for the El Capitan is that, once you pass under its facade, you see this:

A parking lot. (Not that we don't need the parking in the Mission, mind you.)

I have to admit that while, like most San Franciscans, I have been guilty of passing these ruins by without a second thought on many occasions, I feel a pang of sadness when contemplating them now. This is not to say that I feel that their demise should or could have somehow been avoided. No neighborhood, much less the Mission, could sustain such a large number of screens in this day and age. We should, in fact, probably just be grateful that we have their shells on hand as an impetus to memory and historical inquiry.

It's just that, in a retro-fitted city like San Francisco, where the new is just as likely to be built on-top-of or around the old as it is to supplant it, we're provided numerous opportunities in the course of our daily routines to confront the ghosts of the city's past. Yet we seldom choose to do so, more often than not remaining oblivious to them, or if we do take notice of them, doing so with little in the way of sustained curiosity. Perhaps in deciding to let these structures stand, while at the same time doing little to impede their natural process of decay -- by, in essence, allowing them to turn to dust before our eyes -- the city fathers and mothers have provided us with an inadvertent and far too vivid reminder of the impermanence of all of those cozily familiar edifices that we today regard as imperishable fixtures of our daily lives -- all of them monuments to commerce and diversion that are themselves just ruins in the making.

Anyway, I guess this is just my effort to stop and look the ghost in the eye for a moment -- before, of course, turning back on my way in search of dollar DVDs and cheap tube socks

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Poison Rose (Hong Kong, 1966)

As the days pass, it appears increasingly likely that the rumor I reported on last July, concerning Celestial's alleged plan to release more old Shaw Brothers titles on DVD, was just that. This dawning realization leaves me filled with disappointment, bitterness... and, well, hunger. But that last is probably more the result of my having had a light breakfast than it is of the fact that I may never have the chance to see Operation Lipstick or The Brain Stealers.

In any case, in the weeks since that post, a generous friend put me in possession of a dub of his old VHS copy of Poison Rose, a 1966 Shaw production that is just one of the many films that never made it onto Celestial's -- now apparently discontinued -- release schedule. My viewing of the film proved to be both a balm and an irritant, for while it provided a welcome dose of just the type of spy-flavored fun that I was anticipating from those two previously mentioned SB titles, its very existence strongly suggests that the untapped contents of the studio's vaults, rather than just being the dregs of the catalog, include much that is worthwhile.

Not that Poison Rose is any kind of classic, mind you. It is, however, a good example of a type of film that Shaw excelled at: a slick and breezy little genre entry, utterly ephemeral, yet marked by a desire to entertain on the part of its makers so obvious and sincere that to contemplate its quaintness in a modern light almost makes one's heart ache.

The plot of the film concerns a narcotics smuggling ring that is suspected of operating out of a posh Hong Kong nightclub called The Black Widow, where the sultry songbird Chiang Feng (Julie Yeh Feng) is the star attraction. To a great extent, the film feels like a showcase for the Taiwanese born singer/actress/pinup girl Yeh Feng, who, having had her first breakthrough at Cathay nearly ten years previous, was already a well established star of Mandarin cinema by this point. She certainly gets the juiciest role, for Chiang Feng is a classic man-eater, wonderfully exemplified by a scene in which she casually has one of her underlings pay off and send packing her latest boy toy.

Rightly suspecting Chiang Feng of holding an important post within the criminal organization, the authorities assign the caddish Kang Hua (Hsieh Wang), aka Agent A3, to the seemingly impossible task of infiltrating the club and charming his way into Chiang Feng's glacial heart. By this means they hope to gain valuable information about both the gang's operations and the identity of the shadowy Mr. Big running it. Amazingly, the improbable proves doubly possible, and not only does Chiang Feng fall hard for A3, but so does the seemingly unflappable secret agent in turn fall for her.

Written and directed by Lei Pan, Poison Rose has a distinctly different feel from those numerous Bond knock-offs directed for the Shaws by Lo Wei. For one, the focus on the ill-starred romance between Chiang Feng and Kang Hua gives more of an emotional drive to the narrative than can be found in those other films, which can often come across as exercises in rote genre mechanics. There also seems to be a bit of a more sophisticated sense of camp at play here, which, by recognizing the absurdities inherent in that romance, prevents things from simply descending into turgid melodrama. Which is not to say that there isn't some serious drama to be had. Given the set up, betrayal is an inevitable outcome, and Lei Pan does a great job of keeping us guessing as to just who, out of our two lovers, will be doing the betraying and who will be on its receiving end.

Poison Rose is also less flamboyant than most of the Shaw's later spy films, being free of the outlandish undersea lairs and space-age supervillain haberdashery that can be found in movies like The Golden Buddha. As much as I enjoy those fanciful accoutrements, I really didn't miss them in this case, as the film seems to draw more upon the old world glamour and romance of the spy genre and less upon its modern incarnation's obsession with shiny surfaces. Still, Agent A-3 comes equipped with enough clever gadgets -- disguised, of course, as other gadgets -- to keep us well in mind of that other more celebrated screen secret agent to whom he owes his existence.

While I enjoyed Poison Rose, I want to be careful here not to oversell it. It's definitely a modest effort, if an engaging one, and were I to compare it to my favorite among Shaw's espionage-themed films, Chang-hwa Jeong's Temptress of a Thousand Faces, it wouldn't even come close. It's just too easy to become intoxicated by the rarity of a film like this and overestimate its charms. That said, while I would have been happy to see Poison Rose under any circumstances, the fact that it was actually a pretty damn good little movie was a very welcome bonus.